Bess Truman

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Bess Truman
Bess Truman cropped.jpg
First Lady of the United States
In role
April 12, 1945 January 20, 1953
President Harry S. Truman
Preceded by Eleanor Roosevelt
Succeeded by Mamie Eisenhower
Second Lady of the United States
In role
January 20, 1945 April 12, 1945
Vice PresidentHarry S. Truman
Preceded by Ilo Wallace
Succeeded by Jane Barkley (1949)
Personal details
Elizabeth Virginia Wallace

(1885-02-13)February 13, 1885
Independence, Missouri, U.S.
DiedOctober 18, 1982(1982-10-18) (aged 97)
Independence, Missouri, U.S.
Resting place Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum
Independence, Missouri, U.S.
Political party Democratic Party
(m. 1919;died 1972)
Children Margaret
Signature Bess Truman Signature.svg

Elizabeth Virginia Truman (née Wallace; February 13, 1885 October 18, 1982) was the wife of President Harry S. Truman and the First Lady of the United States from 1945 to 1953. She also served as the Second Lady of the United States in 1945.


She had known her future husband since they were children attending the same school in Independence, Missouri. As First Lady, she did not enjoy the social and political scene in Washington, and at the end of her husband's term in 1953, she was relieved to return to Independence. She currently holds the record of longest-lived First Lady and longest-lived Second Lady, at 97 years, 247 days. She died in Independence, Missouri.

Early life and education

Childhood Portrait of Bess Truman at About Age 4 1/2  (Truman Library) Childhood Portrait of Bess Truman at About Age 4 and a half.jpg
Childhood Portrait of Bess Truman at About Age 4½ (Truman Library)

Bess Truman was born Elizabeth Virginia Wallace on February 13, 1885, to Margaret Elizabeth Gates (August 4, 1862 – December 5, 1952, daughter of George Porterfield Gates, co-founder of the Waggoner Gates Milling Company) [1] and David Willock Wallace (June 15, 1860 – June 17, 1903, a local politician, son of a former Independence mayor) [1] in Independence, Missouri, and was known as Bessie during her childhood. She was the eldest of four; three brothers: Frank Gates Wallace, (March 4, 1887 – August 12, 1960), George Porterfield Wallace, (May 1, 1892 – May 24, 1963), David Frederick Wallace, (January 7, 1900 – September 30, 1957). Bess had a reputation as a tomboy as a child. [2] As a young woman, Bess enjoyed expressing herself through her fashion and hats; a friend was quoted "Bess always had more stylish hats than the rest of us did, or she wore them with more style." [3]

Harry and Bess Truman, June 28, 1919. TrumanWedding.PNG
Harry and Bess Truman, June 28, 1919.

Harry Truman met Bess soon after his family moved to Independence, and the two attended school together until graduation. [4]

After graduating from William Chrisman High School (then known as Independence High School) she studied at Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1903, her father rose very early one morning, climbed into the family bathtub, and died by suicide by shooting himself in the head. According to biographer David McCullough, the cause for his suicide is unknown, with speculation ranging from depression to mounting debts. [5] [6] [7]

Bess and Harry Truman married on June 28, 1919, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Independence. [8] Harry courted Bess before he went off to fight during World War I; he proposed in 1911, but she turned him down. Truman later said that he intended to propose again, but when he did he wanted to be earning more money than a farmer did. [9] Their only daughter, Margaret, was born in 1924. [2]

Life in Washington

When Truman was elected as a Senator from Missouri in 1934, the family moved to Washington, DC. Mrs. Truman became a member of the Congressional Club, the PEO Sisterhood, the H Street United Service Organization, and the Red Cross work of the Senate Wives Club. She joined her husband's staff as a clerk, answering personal mail and editing committee reports when he became Chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. [2]

First Lady of the United States

Bess found the White House's lack of privacy distasteful. As her husband put it later, she was "not especially interested" in the "formalities and pomp or the artificiality which, as we had learned..., inevitably surround the family of the President." Though she steadfastly fulfilled the social obligations of her position, she did only what she thought was necessary. When the White House was rebuilt during Truman's second term, the family lived in Blair House and kept their social life to a minimum. In most years of her husband's presidency, Mrs. Truman was not regularly present in Washington other than during the social season when her presence was expected. [10] The contrast with Bess's activist predecessor Eleanor Roosevelt was considerable. Unlike her, Bess held only one press conference after many requests from the media. [11] The press conference consisted of written questions in advance and the written replies were mostly monosyllabic along with many no comments. [12] When asked why she did not want to give press conferences she replied "I am not the one who is elected. I have nothing to say to the public." [3] Bess's response to whether she wanted her daughter Margaret to become president was "most definitely not." Her reply to what she wanted to do after her husband left office was "return to Independence". [13]

As First Lady, Bess served as Honorary President of the Girl Scouts, the Woman's National Democratic Club, and the Washington Animal Rescue League. She was Honorary Chairman of the American Red Cross. [2]

In 1953, the Trumans went back to Independence and the family home at 219 North Delaware Street, where the former president worked on building his library and writing his memoirs. Bess fully recovered following a 1959 mastectomy in which doctors removed a large, but benign, tumor. [14]

When President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law in 1965, the Trumans were the first senior citizens to receive Medicare cards, presented to them by Johnson at the Truman Library. [15]

President Johnson handing former President Truman a pen used to sign the medicare bill as Bess, Lady Bird Johnson, and Vice President Humphrey look on. Photograph of President Lyndon Johnson Hands President Harry S. Truman a Pen at the Signing of the Medicare Bill at the Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.jpg
President Johnson handing former President Truman a pen used to sign the medicare bill as Bess, Lady Bird Johnson, and Vice President Humphrey look on.


In 1961, David Susskind conducted a series of interviews with former President Truman in Independence. After picking Truman up at his home to take him to the Truman Presidential Library for the interviews over several days, Susskind asked Truman why he had not been invited into the home. According to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Truman flatly told Susskind, "This is Bess's house" and that there had never been nor would there ever be a Jewish guest. [16]

Widowhood, death and longevity record

At the time of her husband's death in 1972 at age 88, she was 87, making them the oldest couple having occupied the White House at that time. Bess agreed to be the honorary chairman for the reelection campaign of Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Missouri). [17]

Bess continued to live quietly in Independence for the last decade of her life, being visited by her daughter and grandchildren. She died on October 18, 1982, from congestive heart failure at the age of 97; a private funeral service was held on October 21. Afterwards, she was buried beside her husband in the courtyard of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. [18]

Bess Truman remains the longest-lived First Lady and Second Lady in United States history. [17]

Related Research Articles

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Margaret Truman

Mary Margaret Truman Daniel was an American classical soprano, actress, journalist, radio and television personality, writer, and New York socialite. She was the only child of President Harry S. Truman and First Lady Bess Truman. While her father was president, during the years 1945 to 1953, Margaret regularly accompanied him on campaign trips, most notably the 1948 extensive countrywide train-borne 'Whistle-stop' campaign trip, which lasted several weeks; she also appeared often at important White House and political events during those years. She was a favorite with the media.

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The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum is the presidential library and resting place of Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States (1945–1953), his wife Bess and daughter Margaret, and is located on U.S. Highway 24 in Independence, Missouri. It was the first presidential library to be created under the provisions of the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act, and is one of thirteen presidential libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

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<i>Dear Bess</i> 1983 book of Harry S. Truman writings, edited by historian Robert Hugh Ferrell

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  1. 1 2 Daniel, Clifton Truman (2011). Dear Harry, Love Bess – Bess Truman's Letters to Harry Truman (1919–1943) (PDF). Truman State University Press. p. 1. ISBN   978-1-935503-26-2.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "Truman: Bess Truman's Biography". Retrieved October 22, 2016.
  3. 1 2 Geselbracht. "Young Bess in Hats" (PDF). Prologue. Spring 2013.
  4. Klapthor, Margaret Brown (October 1, 2002). The First Ladies. Government Printing Office. p. 75. ISBN   978-0-912308-83-8.
  5. American Experience: Truman PBS. 1997. Episode 1 of 2.
  6. "24,000 Pages of Bess Truman’s Family Papers Are Released". The New York Times/The Associated Press. February 14, 2009.
  7. "Bess Truman". Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to American Presidents . Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  8. Margolies, Daniel S. (July 30, 2012). A Companion to Harry S. Truman. John Wiley & Sons. p. 37. ISBN   978-1-118-30075-6.
  9. McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp.  78–79. ISBN   978-0-671-86920-5.
  10. Christensen, Lawrence O.; Foley, William E.; Kremer, Gary (October 1999). Dictionary of Missouri Biography. University of Missouri Press. p. 752. ISBN   978-0-8262-6016-1.
  11. Watson, Robert P. (2000). The Presidents' Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady . Lynne Rienner Publishers. p.  89. ISBN   978-1-55587-948-8.
  12. Burnes, Brian (November 1, 2003). Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times. Kansas City Star Books. p. 34. ISBN   978-0-9740009-3-0.
  13. Wertheimer, Molly Meijer (January 1, 2004). Inventing a Voice: The Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 212. ISBN   978-0-7425-2971-7.
  14. Neal, Steve (2004). Eleanor and Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Kensington Publishing Corporation. p. 259. ISBN   978-0-8065-2561-7.
  15. "President Johnson signs Medicare Bill on July 30, 1965". Politico. Retrieved December 15, 2013.
  16. Beschloss, Michael (2007). Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789–1989. New York: Simon & Schuster. p.  210. ISBN   0-684-85705-7.
  17. 1 2 Algeo, Matthew (May 1, 2009). Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip . Chicago Review Press. p.  226. ISBN   978-1-56976-251-6.
  18. "Bess Truman Buried – October 22, 1982". The Gettysburg Times. Retrieved August 1, 2013.


    Honorary titles
    Preceded by
    Ilo Wallace
    Second Lady of the United States
    Title next held by
    Jane Barkley
    Preceded by
    Eleanor Roosevelt
    First Lady of the United States
    Succeeded by
    Mamie Eisenhower